Grave-dancers of 1989 need a new story

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Fall of the Wall in 1989, Invalidenstrasse, Berlin (© Agencja Fotograficzna Caro/Alamy Stock Photo)

‘“The liberal agenda has failed in the West,” said Jenny. “Middle-class Peter will no longer be robbed to pay working-class Paul.” She likened liberal democracy to a criminal cartel’

Lunch was 20 minutes. That was all she could spare and she made sure that I knew it. Fennel risotto with pine nuts and cavolo nero. No wine. All pre-ordered and laid on the table as soon as we sat down.

“Talk,” she instructed, and I did, quickly. I told her about my journey to the end of Europe, and my return to the city that I have so long loved. I told her about my dread of blood-and- soil nationalism in a fractured London. I even said that I feared that the time was ripe for civil unrest.

Across the white tablecloth she listened with an intensity that belied intimacy. When I finished she put down her fork. She took a sip of Waiākea volcanic water. She leaned forward and said, “It won’t happen.”

Jenny was a banker: cropped auburn hair, shrewd green eyes, Dara Lamb suit. As a child in Virginia, she had learned German from her VW exec father and ambition from her antitrust lawyer mother. As head girl at Chatham Hall, she’d made the finals of both the National Speech & Debate Tournament and the US junior squash championships. Citibank had recruited her straight out of Wharton and dropped her into the firestorm after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. She cut her teeth on the international side—leveraged trades, currency hedge funds, credit default swaps.

A rival megabank poached her by offering the UK and, as she was good with clients, made her a senior investment manager. She sublet a flat in the Barbican and indulged her passion for classic Mercedes-Benz, racing her 220 Fintail at Silverstone. She played to her strengths, stayed disciplined and avoided excesses, apart from the car of course. She worked so late that some nights she measured her sleep in minutes. Her contrarian strategy netted annual returns in excess of 20 per cent. Three analysts worked under her. She reported directly to a VP. She was on a roll.

“It won’t happen?” I repeated.

“Two reasons: first, Brussels’s mind-blowing regulations had to be circumvented and, second, our customers trust the fairness of English law.”

“So Britain will become the Singapore of Europe?”

“Will become?” she laughed, her East Coast accent overlaid with English vowels. “Look at the history: the East India Company, Triangular Trade, Imperial Tobacco, Lloyd’s, Eurobonds, non-doms. Enterprise is in England’s DNA. The country is already there.”

I’d been introduced to Jenny by the same friend who’d led me to Dmitri Denisovich, the Russian “chicken tsar” who had introduced me to the oligarchs’ gold-plated world at the start of my journey. Her private clients—most of whom had at least $25
million of investible assets—came from Moscow, Kiev, Caracas and Chipping Norton. They entrusted her with their wealth and she multiplied it, advising them on innovative trades, tax regimes and the state of the US debt bubble. Through her, Russian agri-industrialists financed Turkish chicken farms, Mexican family firms broke into Japanese shipping and Cotswold old money shorted market sell-offs. In return those grateful clients introduced her to “special friends” and government officials from Osaka to Astana. Over vintage Bollinger they whispered of emerging opportunities and looming time bombs, details of which she passed on to New York. She became “a trust pillar on a two-way street”, according to our mutual friend; “the gilded hub of a virtuous circle”. The flexibility of the British authorities—HMRC, Bank of England,
Financial Conduct Authority—also resonated with her clients. “You know where you stand with them,” she assured me.

“So the UK has found its role at last?” I mocked, recalling US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who said in 1962 that Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role. “As a tax haven laundering dirty money?”

“You tell me which economic model will succeed in the 21st century. A low-wage, free-trade model of shredded rules or an over-regulated behemoth—”

“Which protects citizens’ rights and the functioning of the rule of law.”

“Oh, please,” said Jenny, rolling her eyes and pushing aside her risotto. “No nation has ever achieved—or maintained—greatness by giving its people an extra serving of gruel.”

“Maybe that’s all some families can afford now.”

I couldn’t forget that her work—or at least that of her peers—had concocted the toxic brew that had poisoned the global economy.

“Listen, change is life, and change is growth. Gently rising markets and low volatility are yesterday. Ten per cent of the world’s money is now offshore. Flexibility is the new reality, with the broken and rebuilt global connections. Even chaos brings opportunities.”

I looked doubtful, but she went on. “How, after 1945, did Germany rise to become the most powerful nation on the continent? Through trade. Through rebooting the Holy Roman Empire and capturing a market for its goods. How will Britain now keep its head above water? Not by selling Big Ben tea towels.”

Jenny caught the waiter’s eye, who whisked away our plates. As he poured coffee, she went on: “The EU has always been too beautiful to be true. It’s not a natural development from centuries of European civil war. Plus the euro was a huge strategic mistake. A sharper capitalism is essential for survival. When the next recession comes, there will be a price to pay. But my people won’t be footing the bill.”

“Your people?”

“It’s a new beginning.”

I didn’t believe it—or rather I didn’t want to believe it. After the horror of the Second World War, Germany and France had cast off their enmity and Europeans embraced the idea of a shared future. They undertook to set, and to uphold, values and rights across a continent, promoting peace and freedom, protecting human rights, abolishing borders. In such an open society, war would not happen. Prosperity would strengthen democracy, solidarity and well-being.

“The liberal agenda has failed in the West,” said Jenny. “Middle-class Peter will no longer be robbed to pay working-class Paul.” She likened liberal democracy to a criminal cartel that forced citizens to surrender much of their wealth to pay for welfare, hospitals and state schools. She advocated for the necessity of self-interest and unilateralism “in the coming half-century of nationalism”.

“We are living through a revolution, but almost no one sees its true colours,” she said in conclusion, adding in cynical jest, “And those who do? Let them drive Audis! Let them buy
iPhones! Consumerism is the great pacifier.” With a smile she rose to her feet and said, “That’s my time. Don’t print my real name.”

I looked at my watch: 20 minutes, almost to the second. We shook hands and I watched her walk away between the tables of market-makers, FX traders and Lloyd’s underwriters. In Lutyens, the Conran restaurant in the former Reuters building, stock price ticker-tape was immortalised in the marble mosaic floor. The City would survive, of that I had no doubt. But at what cost to those outside the Square Mile? In the last financial crisis, millions of jobs had been destroyed by the economic contraction. Massive government intervention transferred wealth from taxpayers to the banks. In Greece and Spain, two out of every five young people became unemployed. Italy suffered the longest recession in 70 years. France’s sovereign debt soared to near 100 per cent of GDP. Collapsing tax revenues then forced severe cutbacks in public services, and austerity fuelled discontent across Europe. Yet throughout it all, oilmen lunched at West End sushi bars, oligarchs dropped their sons off at Eton and Harrow, and bankers kept hold of their bonuses. Britain’s top executives now rake in on average £4.4 million per year while median national pay hovers around £26,000. I sat down again, and ordered a big glass of wine.

Thomson Reuters News Agency Headquarters, Canary Wharf Tower and Citi Bank Headquarters at Canary Wharf: Closer to New York than Newcastle? (©imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo)

London—dirty, thriving, patched-together London—had long been the centre of my world. Years ago I was drawn to it by its history and openness. I walked its streets by day, collar turned against the winter rain, listening and looking, enthralled by its unfolding story. I loved the city at night: the empty avenues, the clutching couples, the smell of autumn leaves, a single office light glowing on Whitehall. In summer I lay on the grass in Holland Park or sat under a catalpa tree watching Wimbledon, the television’s extension lead snaking out from my flat. I felt myself at home in the British Library and Canada House. I made movies at Shepperton and Pinewood. I cycled to work at the World Service and Goethe-Institut. I met my wife in SW10. David Bowie invited me to Dingwalls. Now when I return, I retrace the old paths and remember the conversations that I’d had along them, reviving them and the countless other voices that I hear suspended in the ether, above Piccadilly and Soho, on Chelsea Bridge and Highgate Hill, in a dozen languages and at a thousand points from Green Lanes to the Pimlico Tandoori.

After lunch I caught the number 9 bus to Kensington Gardens. On that sunny afternoon I circled the Round Pond and paused for breath under the sweet chestnuts on South Flower Walk. Around me idled Spanish students and Australian au pairs, Kuwaiti non-doms and tight-knit bands of Chinese tourists. Russians—so many Russians—pushed prams, walked dogs and looked over their shoulders before waiting Mercedes-Maybachs whisked them back to Harrods. Nearby, Southwark Park school kids ate packed sandwiches after their visit to the V&A. SOAS and Alliance Française language teachers sat together on the steps of the Albert Memorial. American expats played softball while a Polish mothers’ group practised t’ai chi. Their London—our London—felt closer to New York than Newcastle, more like Paris than Preston. For beneath the continent, tectonic plates had shifted, twisting both it and Europe away from England.

Thirty years ago Europe became whole again. I wrote then that the Wall, the late great division of the world, had passed away as an historical aberration. In Berlin, Prague and Moscow I’d danced with so many others on the grave of dictatorships, in an act of defiance, in a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. I convinced myself that our generation was an exception in history, that we’d learned to live by different rules, that we were bound together by freedom. I believed that the horrors of the 20th century—the traumas of which had driven me to become a writer—could never return.

Today, I  try to understand how it went wrong. I’ve seen how Vladimir Putin capitalised on a series of terror attacks—real, dubious or fake—to muscle himself into power, bringing to my mind the Nazis’ seizure of control in Germany. I’ve watched him grab parts of neighbouring countries with an audacity unseen in Europe since the days of Stalin and Hitler. I’ve understood why he ordered his Sukhoi Su-34 fighters to bomb Syria.

In Germany the flood of refugees—even though now much reduced—has roused extremists. Populists have taken Poland and Hungary by demonising illusory enemies.

Finally at home, I’ve witnessed another insular elite exploit public grievances, mutilate truth and try to hijack democracy.

Europe and Britain need a new story, a true story. Perhaps it’s here that it will begin, rather than end. I want to believe that Londoners won’t be told what to do or how to live, that they’ll never accept a stifled media or a single version of reality. Perhaps this open, patched-together capital can show us how to respect rather than scorn our neighbours, can help us to abandon divisive nativist notions, as well as grand fancies of empire or a harmonious super-state. Perhaps London, in its diversity and untidiness, in its dissonance, can illuminate for the whole continent (including this island on the edge) how to stop being slaves to illusions.

Where then is the real end of Europe? I once thought it to be a physical place, perhaps the line of the River Oder or the Urals. I realise now that it is not a freak of geography and is far more a question of culture and morality, a matter of principles. It’s the point where antique forms of identity clash with modernity, where tolerance, decency and a certain way of thinking end, where openness meets a wall.

 

This is an edited extract from “Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe” by Rory MacLean, published November 1 by Bloomsbury at £20.00. Copyright © Rory MacLean 2019.